Hunting Mob Bosses In The Mountains Of Calabria

Inside an elite unit of the Carabinieri military police using old and new tactics to track down fugitive leaders of the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

San Luca, Italy
Ariela Piattelli

SAN LUCA — The small town of San Luca sits high on the slopes of the Aspromonte mountains, which dominate the southwestern tip of Italy. Home to some 4,000 people, this village in the region of Calabria is also the unofficial headquarters of one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates: the "Ndrangheta.

Its tentacles extend from the cocaine-exporting cartels of Latin America to fraudulent businesses in Eastern Europe. After the decline of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra in the 1990s and a rise in turf wars within the Naples-based Camorra, the "Ndrangheta has emerged as the most powerful mafia group in Italy. The men of the Calabrian Hunters Helicopter Squadron, an elite unit of Italy's Carabinieri military police, are on a mission to bring that reign to an end.

"Ndrangheta operates in family-based units rooted in small towns and has been difficult, as a result, to infiltrate. Recently, though, the Hunters arrested Girolamo Facchineri, the heir in line to rule a powerful "Ndrangheta clan in the area. Agents arrested him in an abandoned house near Cittanova, deep in the Aspromonte forest.

"We don't do it for glory or for money."

The Hunters were conducting a sweep in the area when they found clothes, food, binoculars and a gun inside the house. Then, they discovered the bunker where Facchineri was hiding. The special unit's commander enthusiastically displayed a photo of his men smiling next to the handcuffed Facchineri. "Taking a photo is a rite of passage," he says. "It's part of the hunt."

Codes and rituals

The Italian state's war on the "Ndrangheta is headquartered in army barracks in the town of Vibo Valentia, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of San Luca. The Calabrian Hunters unit was founded in 1991 to end a wave of kidnappings in Calabria, but its mandate has since been expanded. Today its primary objective is to catch "Ndrangheta bosses on the run.

Agents also infiltrate local clans, fight drug trafficking, destroy cannabis plantations and dismantle bunkers and hiding places in their efforts to weaken their enemy. In its 27 years of operation, the unit has unearthed more than 400 secret bunkers and arrested over 8,000 people, including 285 leaders who had absconded from prison.

"We don't do it for glory or for money. We do it because we believe in the fight against the mafia," says Commander Milo Aveni. "Many of our men have been waging battle against injustice since they were kids."

A Carbanieri police raid against the "Ndrangheta​ in January — Photo: DPA/ZUMA

"Hunting" mafia bosses, as the agents call it, is a delicate activity that requires a deep knowledge of the "Ndrangheta's codes and rituals. "When we go to arrest a boss on the run, their wife offers us coffee, and we drink it while he prepares his bag," says Andrea, an agent who grew up in Vibo Valentia. "We have to stoop to their level and look them in the eyes."

Having coffee and taking photos with criminals may seem too close for comfort, but the agents see it as a necessary dialogue. Many of them have been living alongside "Ndrangheta members since they were born.

"Calabria is a body that has been fighting a cancer for its entire life," says Andrea. "I went to school with the children of mafiosi, and I often find myself interrogating my former classmates."

Bunker busters

As the agents approach the town of San Luca, some children on motorbikes drive off towards the town center to alert locals of their arrival. When the agents arrive, the heart of the country's most powerful crime syndicate resembles a ghost town. Two kids make an offensive gesture to the policemen as they walk past shuttered houses in silence.

"They know we're here so they shut themselves in," says Aveni. "Out of 4,000 residents, a quarter of them are under arrest."

The nearby town of Platì, a patchwork of shanty towns and luxury villas, is another well-known "Ndrangheta hub. Just like in San Luca, teenagers keep an eye out for any police presence arriving in town. If they see agents with wet boots, they can tell the police are returning from a raid in the forest.

"Hunting the "Ndrangheta is like playing a game of chess," says Michele, a 44-year-old agent who has uncovered dozens of bunkers in his career as a Calabrian Hunter. "Whenever we find one they always build something new. In one bunker, they even built an underground skateboard for transport."

"Out of 4,000 residents, a quarter of them are under arrest."

For Michele and his fellow agents, photographs with the criminals they capture are like taking a scalp to commemorate their work. Many arrests are carried out around Pietra Cappa, a rocky outcrop that rises over the Aspromonte. The monolith, Europe's largest, is the source of many local legends and strikes fear in the hearts of "Ndrangheta bosses who hide there.

"Imagine how scared these people must have felt, holed up alone at night in the wilderness," says Michele. "We also feel fear, of course. We have emotions and families too, but we look fear in the eye and we face it down to accomplish our objective."

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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